It was not the worst hangover he’d ever had, but it would not be one he counted among his favourites.
His head pulsed with a sort of heavy, painful, thudding beat, and if someone had told him that the throbbing was coming from an apple-sized growth forced into the soft matter of his brain, he wouldn’t have had a hard time believing it. His mouth was so dry it almost made him gag to swallow, which he did not infrequently, and his hands were trembling so much that his exam essay looked like it had been written on an Etch-a-Sketch.
One neon-lit panel of the exam hall’s ceiling had a loose connection, and every few seconds would flicker wildly: hosted as it was to the top right hand of his vision, it had left Aimé in such a state of pain he’d almost wished for a sudden onset of epilepsy, because at least epilepsy might do you the good grace of killing you: his headache would only threaten to, and do so viscerally.
Suffice it to say, he did not leave the exam hall with the greatest of confidences in the essay he had written, but such was life.
As soon as he stepped out of the building, he flicked a cigarette out of its box, and put the butt of it in his mouth, shielding the tip from the breeze as he lit it. His lighter was on the way out, and took half a dozen increasingly irritable drags of his thumb against the flint to light, but he had a dozen or so more in the satchel on his bike – admittedly, several of those didn’t work either, but he could cross that bridge when he came to it.
The first rush of nicotine was not at all the relief that a 1950s advert might have him believe, but it was a small one, and he exhaled at the bitter, smoking rush over his tongue, leaning against the railing of the steps.
A pretty girl in a floral blouse gave him a foul look as she passed him – there were designated smoking areas on campus, little segregated areas to keep all the lung cancer in one contained spot – and Aimé responded with a beatific smile.
He needed a drink.
He didn’t think it would make all that much of a difference – even with a drink, it would take a while for the hangover to roll back, and he didn’t even think he was in the mood, at this point of the morning, to actually get drunk. It was a matter of habit, he supposed.
A wave of nausea washed over him, and as an experienced sailor weathering a real wave, he pressed his lips together, closing his eyes for a moment, and let it pass.
When he opened his eyes, he saw l’ange passing by.
He was not with either of his two brothers, this time: dressed in an oversized, red wool cardigan, which was belted around his narrow waist with a tacky little band of leather decorated with the French tricolour, he carried a stack of notebooks under one arm, and was holding a carrier bag from the university’s bookshop.
Ordinarily, Aimé had noticed, Jean wore simple skinny jeans or leggings, showing off the muscle of his legs and contrasting the massive jumper or cardigan inevitably hanging from around his shoulders, giving him the silhouette of a shiitake mushroom. Those jeans or leggings were normally plain, as much as they were sometimes brightly coloured: this pair was a new one, black, with white bones decorating them.
Aimé itched to shout something out, say something that might make l’ange turn and look up at him at the stop of the steps – ask if Halloween was a few months early, or if he had a costume party to get to, or something. Anything to just make l’ange stop, and look at him, say something back. His mouth felt thick and full and tasted of cigarettes, and his tongue, traitorously, would not move.
He didn’t have headphones in. Jean never had headphones in, that Aimé had seen, even when he was walking around on his own, and today he was wearing his hair loose, so that his curls bounced while he walked, and Aimé found himself wondering, of all things, what it smelled like.
Christ, he needed to actually fuck somebody.
Once l’ange had passed by, Aimé descended the steps and began to walk over to where he’d put his bike, his hands in his pockets, his cigarette hanging loosely from his lips. He wouldn’t drink anything, right away – he’d cycle over to the green, and start painting before he did anything else, get a few more canvases done. That Jean had been on campus, though, did mean that he was going to be attending Trinity in September, surely?
Aimé wondered what sort of thing he’d study – he would be a mature student, Aimé guessed, but he couldn’t actually be sure, because Jean had a sort of pretty tint to his features and a brightness in his eyes, and Aimé could as easily believe he was twenty as he could that he was thirty. He looked like a literature student, or maybe politics – or maybe, even, philosophy.
Aimé imagined offering him grinds. He did have good grades, all told – he often ended up doing half of his exams in the second sitting, but it had never been because he’d failed one, only because he’d been too smashed to attend. Even the exams he sat while drunk out of his mind, he normally did well on – if anything, his drunk essays seemed to do better.
The idea of Jean l’ange as some wide-eyed fresher, trying to wrap his pretty head around the arguments for and against the existence of God, letting himself be convinced to put the Aquinas aside for a little bit and be introduced to bodyshots instead?
That thought appealed.
Knowing his luck, it wouldn’t even be Jean that came to the university – it’d be Colm or the other one, and as handsome as they were, neither of them really had the brightly French, airheaded vibe l’ange gave off in spades. Even if it was one of them, hopefully they’d bring their twink brother onto campus, because the three of them seemed close enough.
Unlocking his bike with a simple enchantment, he threw his leg over the saddle and started cycling, and told some girl with a tote bag to fuck off when she shouted at him to get on the cycle path – and then did.
It would be his final year, once he came back in September, and he really didn’t know what he was going to do afterward – if he kept up the current academic performance, he’d come out with a first, and that might make his dad crack a small smile (for a second), but wouldn’t actually get him a job.
His dad might want to get him in somewhere, but he couldn’t be fucked with that, putting on a suit and pretending to give a shit about whatever spreadsheet shite any company wanted from their men in suits – and they’d probably want him to shave.
He could sell more art, he supposed. People bought it in the park, now and then, and he’d be able to rent out a gallery easily enough, put some bigger pieces for sale. Maybe write some bollocksed up thinkpieces as a classical artist in the 21st century, say what millennials were fucking up now, not buying baroque oil paintings.
The mere thought lit a cheerful fire under the ever-bubbling pot of Aimé’s self-loathing.
He fished a miniature of sambuca out of the basket of his bike.
* * *
Weeks passed, one by one.
The garden flourished under Colm’s capable hands, and when August came slowly to its end, it was nothing like what it had been before: every inch of it bloomed with flowers or fruit-bearing bushes, or vegetables, or leaves, and the trees were beginning to ripen with the autumn crop. The greenhouses – of which there were now a few, one the big glass one, and several more of the standing plastic ones – were alive with new vegetables, and Colm had taken to preparing crates to bring into a few different places in the city once a week.
After a week of complex manoeuvre with a few trellises, where Jean-Pierre had confidently nailed the frames into place and enchanted them appropriately as Colm had panicked twelve feet beneath him, Jean-Pierre and Asmodeus each had blackberries growing around their windows, and it would be a favourite pastime of Jean’s, come their ripening, to sit on his windowsill and pick at them as he read.
Jean had taken a few jobs recently, flying to and from each of them, and he was scrubbing the blood from underneath his fingernails when Colm came upon him in the kitchen, leaning on the counter.
“Benedictine said you took out a politician?”
“A mayor,” Jean-Pierre said softly. “And her husband.”
Colm glanced down at Jean-Pierre’s now mostly clean hands, at the red staining the metal surface of the sink. “I thought you were using that heart attack thing for assassinations now.”
Jean-Pierre pressed his tongue against the inside of his cheek, considering his answer, and then said, lowly, “There was a last-minute change of plans.”
“A messy one?”
“I knew they were racists,” Jean-Pierre muttered, feeling his cheeks burn slightly with embarrassment – he’d never considered himself to have the greatest of self-control, but he didn’t ordinarily let his temper get the better of him. “She’d had ties to the KKK, her family. But I broke in via their basement, and among the Confederate memorabilia, there was a lot of child pornography. Not an expected aspect.”
Colm exhaled with a quiet whistle, putting his hand on Jean-Pierre’s upper arm and squeezing. “So?”
“I put her through the glass wall of their shower,” Jean-Pierre said, “and then stabbed him with a larger shard. A couple’s dispute gone far awry. I’m going to go bring that man home.”
Colm blinked at him, uncomprehending. “What man?”
Colm’s head tilted to the side, his lips parting. Jean-Pierre watched them move for a moment, silently repeating the name, before Colm shook his head. “Who?”
“The artist in St Stephen’s Green.”
Understanding dawned. “The one you’ve been stalking?”
“I’m going to bring him home,” Jean-Pierre repeated. “I am tired, and I wish to relax.”
“You can invite him home with you,” Colm said. “It doesn’t mean he’ll agree.”
Jean-Pierre turned to look at his brother’s face as he turned off the tap, beginning to dry off his hands. For a moment, Colm tried to look as though he believed what he’d just said, but then relented, huffing out a breath and giving Jean-Pierre an irritable look.
“You aren’t the only one who can charm people,” Jean-Pierre said, feeling his lips shift up into a small smile.
“People being dazzled by your looks isn’t the same as charming them, Jean.”
“Mmm,” Jean-Pierre hummed, squeezing Colm’s jaw affectionately. “Perhaps were I so plain as you, dear frère, I would agree with you.”
Colm slapped his hand away, but his smile was good-natured. “I’ll make myself scarce, then.”
“I’ll keep him in my bedroom.”
“That’s not the point,” Colm said.
“I don’t know, could be anywhere.”
Asmodeus didn’t have a phone. He didn’t even have an email address – the only way anyone could ever contact him was by proxy, through another angel or through that strange little man in Nottingham he always took up with, and while they could broadly assume he was still in Dublin – he would tell them if he had gone abroad – there was no reliable way of tracking his movements if he did not leave instructions.
Jean-Pierre at once envied and was maddened by his commitment to his technophobia.
“The church, I suppose,” Jean-Pierre said softly.
Asmodeus had been spending a good deal of time with Father Byrne recently – they had the sort of long, complicated conversations that Jean-Pierre had never witnessed, but had seen the aftermath of in other priests before, and twice, thus far, in Father Byrne. He was always flushed afterwards, with sweat shining on his brow, looking ready to crawl out of his skin, and failing that, the cloth that marked him as a man of God.
Colm pressed his lips together, crossing his arms loosely over his chest. “I’m going to go for a drive,” he decided.
“Will you drive me to St Stephen’s?” Jean-Pierre asked, pouting out his lips, and Colm sighed.
“Fine,” he said quietly. “Get your coat.”
* * *
It had been raining on and off all day, but that rarely deterred Aimé. The wind had not been too bad, and so nestled as he was under his golf umbrella, he could paint without getting too wet – the only problem was that the actual paintings might take longer to dry, but they always took ages anyway.
He sold fewer paintings, true, but he had long ago learned on wet days to focus on little canvases that were easy for someone to hide under their coats, and he’d still sold a few today.
The thought occurred, however distantly, that if he really started to take this seriously, he might never have to rely on money from his parents’ fund for him ever again, but the thought slipped away again as quickly as it had come.
There was a little over a week before he’d be back attending lectures, and he was looking forward to the change in routine – there were a few university societies he occasionally attended, and various haunts around the city that he liked, when populated with students. No one much liked that he showed up, of course, but it was still nice to go and push the more accessible buttons.
It wasn’t that Aimé didn’t have friends: he did, at times.
Certainly, over the summer months, he’d had various invitations to birthday parties, seshes, and pub crawls; once or twice, he’d had people message him about exhibitions or debates. Mostly lads he’d slept with, although some girls, as well.
He’d ignored them all.
He had a phone, but he didn’t usually respond to text messages, nor emails – over the summer, he’d met up with Riordan Connolly, who was a lecturer in art history at UCD, twice, each time going to an exhibition, and then for pints. He’d gone on one date after a girl at his old boxing gym had asked him to take her to dinner, and quickly decided she didn’t want to see him again.
It was more social interaction than he regularly liked for his summers, in truth: he liked to spend his summers in relative isolation, painting, selling paintings, or drinking. Ideally, the latter would be optional, but in actuality, it was the only constant.
He’d drink less when he was back in university, probably – he did tend to drink more when he was on his own.
“A weeping willow?” said a voice beside him, and Aimé turned to stare at l’ange, who had bent his head slightly to come under Aimé’s umbrella.
Wet from the rain, his raincoat tied around his waist, his blouse was half-transparent and sticking to his chest, and his hair was damp and hanging around his shoulders. Moisture glistened on his skin, and this close-up, Aimé could see the pale blue colour of his eyes, and see just how pink his lips were.
Aimé looked to his canvas, where he’d been idly painting. The bark of the willow tree was a pale, grey-white, and its branches hung down to brush the surface of the running stream beside it, like someone’s fingers might.
“It’s beautiful,” said Jean l’ange softly. Aimé reached up, taking the cigarette out of his mouth and turning his head to blow away the smoke, and Jean said, breathlessly, “You’re the painter.”
“Just a painter,” Aimé said lowly. “No need for the definite article.”
Jean giggled like a coquette in a French romance novel, reaching out and brushing his fingers over Aimé’s chest, over the fabric of his t-shirt. Aimé wondered if this was really happening, or his libido had decided to take matters into his own hands, and give him the most unrealistic wet dream imaginable. He was aware for the first time that Jean was nearly a head taller than him, forcing Aimé to look up at his pretty face.
“Ah,” he said, one finger tracing the line of his sternum, “but you are the definite article. I see your paints, your brushes, and your skill…” Looking to the canvas again, he softly sighed, and Aimé took in the scents that clung to him, a sort of green-house ozone smell, the smell of fruit, and most of all, that strange note of frankincense he’d noticed in the past. “You do not sign your work?”
“Not until it’s done,” Aimé managed to say. “But my name is Aimé.”
“Aimé,” Jean purred, his hand spreading on Aimé’s chest now, his fingers impossibly warm. “And true, no doubt, mm?”
“What’s your name?” Aimé forced out. His grip on his paintbrush was so tight he worried it would snap.
“Jean-Pierre,” l’ange said. “Delacroix. You paint here every day – I’ve seen you.”
“I’ve seen you too,” Aimé said, and realised how creepy it sounded when Jean-Pierre’s blond brows raised in surprise. “Not that— Just, you know. Around the city.”
“You will not see me this week,” l’ange informed him. “I will start university soon, and I am planning to spend the week preparing by locking myself in my bedroom, wearing little to no clothes, and watching a boxset of an historical drama called Rome. Have you seen it?”
“Um,” Aimé said, “n— no.”
“Would you like to?”
“You— You did just say little to no clothes?”
“Sometimes I wear a kimono,” Jean-Pierre said. “If the air is too chill.” He smiled, his finger tracing down to the middle of Aimé’s torso, playing over his navel and making him shiver ticklishly. “I don’t expect that to be a problem.”
“Is this— I’m sorry, angelic twinks don’t normally approach me in the park for Netflix and chill,” Aimé said.
“Angelic?” Jean-Pierre repeated, his pretty lips forming an O.
“Is this a human trafficking thing?”
Jean-Pierre laughed, and gestured to the beer cans stacked beneath his easel. “Something tells me your organs aren’t worth selling,” he said sweetly. “But if you would rather not—”
“I didn’t say that,” Aimé said, beginning to rinse off his brushes, and Jean-Pierre beamed beside him. “You might hate me before the night is through.” He cursed himself for saying it as he rushed to pack his stuff away, but l’ange was undeterred, and simply laughed softly.
“Why would I hate you?” l’ange asked. “Are you a policeman?”
“Well, no, but—”
“Then hurry,” Jean-Pierre said, pouting his pretty lips. “I must get out of these wet clothes.”
“Christ,” Aimé choked out.
It stopped raining by the time they were walking along to Aimé’s bike, and as Jean-Pierre watched him tie up his canvases under their little tarpaulin, he said, “I’m afraid I have one small compunction.”
“Oh, yeah, what’s that?”
“I do not like cigarettes in my home.”
Aimé, who had just been fishing the box of cigarettes out of his pocket, tossed the whole thing into the rubbish bin beside them. Jean-Pierre’s laugh was like a peal of bells, and Aimé stared at the pale column of his neck as rain drops slid down it, into his collarbone, and then beneath the transparent, sticking fabric of his blouse, where the skin seemed marked and messy, somehow.
Aimé wanted very much to trace the same path with his tongue, and if he got murdered or woke up from this insane dream before he got the opportunity, so be it.
“Come,” Jean-Pierre said brightly, taking his hand.
“I’ll try to,” Aimé mumbled, and wondered if he’d done a tab of something without meaning to.
* * *
“I like the enchantments you have on your bicycle lock,” Jean-Pierre said. They were on the bus, and l’ange had casually lifted Aimé’s arm and wrapped it around his shoulder, which did not at all take away from the sense of burgeoning unreality Aimé felt like he was being subjected to. He didn’t ordinarily sleep with people sober – and other people were rarely interested in him unless they were particularly drunk too, or somehow had self-esteem issues.
This, this was—
“I should’ve known you weren’t mundane,” Aimé said, and Jean-Pierre laughed against the side of his neck, his breath hot.
“No, you had it correct before,” he said idly. Before Aimé could ask what that meant, Jean-Pierre said, “I live with my brothers, but neither of them will be home.”
“How old are you?”
“Two-hundred-and-eighty-eight,” Jean-Pierre said mildly.
Aimé stared at him. “Oh.” He curled his hand in against Jean-Pierre’s neck, pressing on the warm, soft, yielding flesh there, looking at the contrast between his own olive skin and Jean-Pierre’s, which was pale as porcelain, and looked liable to bruise just as easily. Aimé wet his lip. “You’re not a vampire.”
“No,” Jean-Pierre agreed.
“But— but not human?”
He’d been with a vampire, once, Annette.
She’d bought one of his paintings from his stall at the witches’ market – he did that at Christmas – and given him her phone number, and it had been weird. She hadn’t even been that old, only fifty or sixty, but vampire biology was really different to a human’s – their flesh was cold and hard, something to do with the way their immune systems reacted to being a vampire, but Jean-Pierre wasn’t anything like that. He didn’t look fae, Aimé didn’t think, but you could never really tell if someone was fae, because that wasn’t really about being from one of the fae races – if someone grew up in the fae realms, that made them fae through-and-through.
He waited for l’ange to explain, to say something, but no explanation came – he looked contentedly out of the window and wound one of his hands through Aimé’s own, and Aimé wondered if he should be allowing this, if he was crazy – if he was crazy, so be it.
If he died muffled by porcelain flesh, he’d die happy – he didn’t think he’d ever really been happy before. It’d be a nice novelty.
“This is our stop,” Jean-Pierre said, and tugged Aimé off the bus (Aimé was aware of other people on the bus, old people and students and women with their shopping, looking at them curiously, at the twink leading his ugly boyfriend down the step and onto the pavement) and down the street.
L’ange’s garden was so full of vegetables, trees, and fruit that Aimé stumbled on the path, trying to look in every direction at once. He’d never seen a garden so chock-a-block with stuff like this in his life, and when he looked to the house itself, he saw that a few vines had been guided onto trellises up the side of the house, including blackberry brambles.
He felt the weight of the enchantment when he stepped over the threshold, and he exhaled, touching the wall. Most magic left a kind of signature on the end, but enchantment was ordinarily a subtle thing, a kind of current you might notice at the edge of the room if you concentrated, but Aimé had long-since had it ingrained in himself to look for proper ward structures – his father’s riches had been built in the magical security industry – and the weight of whatever was here was immense.
“It’s on the skirting boards,” Jean-Pierre said when he saw Aimé looking around, but judging by the slight quirk of his lips, he was pleased that Aimé had noticed. “I do it myself.”
“All of it?” Aimé found himself asking as he watched Jean-Pierre hang up his coat and start on the lacing of his boots, and he awkwardly began to copy him, leaning to undo his own boots.
“All of it. I blend a few styles.” As he spoke, Jean-Pierre was unlacing the front of his blouse, and drawing it over his head. His skin did have marks on it – now, able to actually see the bare flesh, Aimé could see that they weren’t just marks, but raised areas of scar tissue, scattered over his chest and belly, a few over his arms, as he’d seen before. “I have a unique signature, I am informed.”
“Right,” Aimé said, distracted, and let Jean-Pierre lead him up the stairs.
L’ange’s bedroom was everything Aimé could have imagined, not that imagining the actual bedroom had really come much into his imaginings – on the occasions he wanked himself off thinking about Jean-Pierre (which were more than he’d admit to) he’d barely put the effort into imagining the bed. Jean-Pierre had a small, impossibly cosy bedroom, dominated by an extremely large bed, and to one edge of the room was a wardrobe and a set of wall-mounted shelves, on one of which was a sleek television, and a few scattered trinkets and tchotchkes, many of them decorated with different small flags. There were a lot of bookshelves, many of them filled with books older than Aimé was himself, and a messy desk scattered over with different pens and pencils, with a few sketches and notes made alongside some open textbooks.
There were more blankets in this room than there probably were in every home section of every Penneys in the country.
Stacked on shelves, neatly folded, messily thrown and tangled over the base of the bed, there were seemingly dozens of them, in different weights and textures – some were quilted, some were fleece or fur, a few were even silk and cotton top sheets, and these were all separate to the actual duvets on the bed, of which Aimé counted at least three.
Cushions cascaded over and off of l’ange’s bed – more a nest, really – in waves.
As Aimé slowly shut the door behind them with a quiet click – it had Jean-Pierre written on its brass plate – he watched Jean-Pierre shimmy out of his leggings, and as he stood there, naked, his hair brushing his shoulders, he carefully folded them, and placed them in the wicker laundry hamper.
“No scars on your arse,” Aimé said. He didn’t know why he said it – in retrospect, it didn’t seem like a very good idea to say.
Jean-Pierre laughed, turning to look at him, and Aimé stared at him, unable to tear his gaze away from his body. “Firing squads do not shoot at your behind. Will you come lie in bed with me?”
“Is this actually happening?”
“Mmm hmm,” Jean-Pierre said, reaching for Aimé’s hands, and tugged him into the bed, pushing him up against the gathered cushions. Aimé let himself guided and arranged into place, touching the scars scattered over Jean-Pierre’s thighs, his belly, his chest, as l’ange made himself comfortable, and then curled against Aimé’s side.
He turned on the television.
“Are we— are we actually going to watch Rome?” Aimé asked.
“You said you’d never seen it before,” Jean-Pierre said accusatively.
“I… haven’t,” Aimé said. His head was spinning, and his arm was curled around Jean-Pierre’s surprisingly muscled back, his hand resting on the curve of his small – but firm – arse.
Halfway into the second episode, l’ange switched the television off without warning, and started to kiss him.